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Passing of college, NBA basketball legend Bill Walton strikes home – John Cardullo

by John Cardullo, sportswriter

Photo, above: “Courtesy of Pac-12 Networks”

I have to say that the news of the passing of basketball great Bill Walton hit me unexpectedly hard. In my youth I began following Providence College basketball like many college basketball fans did in Rhode Island. As the Providence College program grew, they began to establish for themselves a national basketball schedule, and began playing teams that you would only hear about, but not get to follow.

Teams that played west of the Mississippi where usually teams that you had seen only in the national top twenty list of the Providence Journal. There was no ESPN or ESPN 2 back then. Seeing the mighty UCLA Bruins play in those days was simply a treat! A game of that magnitude would be played on a major television network against another powerhouse, such as Notre Dame, Indiana, Michigan, or North Carolina. In other words, a major national college basketball power.

As Providence College began to play against those teams, the metering stick of excellence was the UCLA Bruins. The team that won 8 National Championships and had the greatest basketball coaches in the history of college basketball, the Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden. Wooden had his choice of any college basketball talent in the country, and he developed a “pipeline” from New York and the Eastern half of the continent through established contacts. Lew Alcindor, Jr. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was probably the most famous player of the 1960’s, but then followed who was considered one of the greatest centers of all time, Bill Walton. In Walton’s college career, he led UCLA to two more championships, two 30-0 seasons, two NCAA tournament MVP selections and All-American selections.

Bill Walton passed away from a long battle with cancer on May 26th. With the news of his loss, I couldn’t help but reflect on a remarkable career in spite of the fact that he nursed bad knees and chronically painful feet on his 6’11” stature, his entire life. He still managed to go on to the NBA and as the number one draft selection of the Portland Trailblazers, he led them to the 1977 NBA Championship. For most of his career, Walton played hurt, and was often out of the lineup often due to his feet situation.

In 1986 Walton signed to the Boston Celtics after being released by the San Diego Clippers. It was with Boston where many witnessed him joining in as the 6th man to Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson, and still considered to this day as the greatest Boston Celtic team of all time.  The 1986 Celtics won the NBA Championship by defeating the Los Angeles Lakers. It was the team chemistry and unselfishness of the team that drew fans far and near to cheer for the Celtic green. The contribution of Walton accepting his off the bench role won him the NBA’s 6th player award.

Injuries to Walton’s feet would lead to his retirement from professional basketball a year after his season with Boston. He would eventually become a television commentator for college basketball before moving on to the NBA. When Walton was growing up he stuttered and shied away from making public statements, but with some advice and help from those in speech therapy, Walton overcame his issue and became one of sports’ premier basketball analysts. He credited both John Wooden and Red Auerbach as the most important influences in his life.

With Wooden, Walton would like to share the story that after he, as a kid from California, had chosen UCLA as the school he wanted to play for in his college career, but he couldn’t wait to absorb all this knowledge and wisdom from Wooden, the creator of the Wooden’s pyramid of success. It was at his first UCLA practice that he and his teammates spent their three-hour practice learning the correct way to put their socks on and take their socks off. The coach’s logic was that having their socks on incorrectly could cause a blister, and that could mean a player missing playing time, which would hurt the team. The real message that was made was that “no detail as small as putting your socks on should be ignored”. Under Auerbach he learned what it was like to be given a second chance and how enjoyable the game could be when given the freedom to play and flourish in a professional atmosphere and have fun playing.

Walton was named to both the NBA’s 50th and 75th anniversary teams as well as being inducted into the College and Naismith Basketball Pro Hall of Fames. Walton also was a huge fan of the band The Grateful Dead and would often travel with the band on tour. One story goes that while a member of the Celtics, Walton took the entire Celtic team to go see the band play in concert at the Boston Garden.

As I write this, a thought came to me that a few weeks back when I had a chance to interview Providence College great, Ernie DiGregorio, I asked him if he ever spoke to Bill Walton?  I remembered that a record album was made of that 1974 season with both Ernie and Walton on the cover. DiGregorio’s face broke into a huge smile as he reflected on his memories of Walton. Saying that Walton was a great guy, he went on, “I knew Bill back in our college days, we would often have to make appearances together when the after season national awards were named. In the NBA we played against each other, we would also bump into one another during off season events and promotions. He was one of the good guys!”

I had come to admire and respect both John Wooden and Bill Walton since all those many years ago, but to hear the mutual admiration that Ernie D and Walton had for each other made me sad to know that the world of sports has just lost another great one. Rest in peace, Bill!

Sharing a brief message delivered by Walton in 2016 to the graduating class at the New England Institute of Technology, when he was presented with an Honorary Doctorate.


Photo, top: Associated Students of the University of California at Los Angeles, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

John Cardullo, sportswriter. John is a lifelong Rhode Islander. His sports experience is extensive, as a player, coach and sponsor of youth and high school sports. He has been the Public Address Announcer for the CCRI Men’s and Women’s Soccer teams. Both the Cranston East and Cranston West football, Cranston East Boys and Girls basketball for 12 years before moving onto the Central, Juanita Sanchez and Mt. Pleasant football teams. Also, Central HS Boys and Girls Basketball, Scituate High School Boys and Girls Basketball, Johnston High School Girls Basketball, Boys Volleyball, Girls Softball, Boys and Girls Soccer teams, and CLCF football.

John has been involved in Men’s softball for 61 years, starting as a batboy for his father’s team in 1964. He moved to the teams scorekeeper then became a player in 1975, and created the men’s team, Players Corner Pub, that went on to win 20 State Championships in their 35 year history. In the 1990’s he published the statewide softball magazine “The Fielders Choice” which was dedicated to all topics related to adult softball. As a feature writer, John and the publication won several media awards. In 2019 he was elected and inducted into the Rhode Island Slow Pitch Softball Hall of Fame which he also helped create. John is a softball umpire in Warwick, Rhode Island.

In his spare time John golfs with his life long friends on a weekly basis in season. After retiring from the printing Industry after a 45-year career, he now writes specialty sports columns for

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